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Archive for Asia

Experiencing the 2019 Daegu Lantern Festival

If you had asked me when I first moved to Daegu which upcoming event in the city I was most excited for, I probably would have said the Daegu Dalgubeol Lantern Festival. After seeing pictures of the lantern ceremony online, I knew there was no way I was going to miss it this year. The online photos all showed an incredible spectacle that looked just like the beautiful “I See the Light” scene in Disney’s Tangled. I’m a huge Disney geek, and Tangled is one of my favourite movies, so I was stoked to have a real-life Rapunzel experience of my own.

The first thing I had to do was to get my hands on a ticket to the festival. It’s basically impossible to buy one online, since they always sell out within, like, the first 30 seconds of being released. (And I’ve heard that the ticket website is only available in Korean anyway.) Luckily, there are always a limited number of tickets available to buy in-person on the day of the festival. They’re sold just outside the baseball stadium in Duryu Park, where the event is held. Ticket sales don’t open until 11:00 a.m., but I knew I would have to get there early if I wanted to be sure of getting a ticket.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the baseball stadium at 9:30, there were already almost a hundred people in line for tickets. I took my place in the queue, sat down on the curb, opened up the book that I’d brought with me to pass the time (Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which I cannot recommend highly enough), and prepared myself for a long but worthwhile wait.

By 11:30 I finally had a purple wristband on my arm that would admit me to the special section of the stadium for foreigners. (I think this new foreigner section must be a new addition to the festival because I’ve never heard of it before.) The price for a ticket was 10,000 won or 30,000 won for a group of four. Luckily for me, there was a group of seven people standing in line in front of me who needed one more person to make their party a multiple of four, so I joined with them to get the discount.

I still had several hours to pass before the lanterns would be released, so I headed to nearby Gwanmun Market and whiled away the time shopping for secondhand clothes. (Pro tip: Gwanmun Market is a paradise for thrift store lovers and bargain hunters like me.)

I arrived back at Duryu Park around 3:00 and headed for the baseball stadium. There were already lots of people there, picnicking with their friends on mats they had laid out in the bleachers. There was a ton of confusion among festival staff members as to which entrance foreigners with a purple wristband were supposed to go through, but I finally made it into the stadium shortly before 4:00. There were only a few other people in my section yet, so I was free to sit wherever I wanted.

Daegu lantern festivalDaegu Daegu

After settling into my seat, I once again had nothing to do but wait and wait and wait, until darkness fell and the lanterns would be released. There were some traditional Korean performances on the stage to entertain the audience in the interval, but none of them were particularly riveting at the distance I was sitting from the stage.

By the time darkness had finally fallen, the impatience in the crowd was palpable. Nobody seemed to know exactly when they were supposed to release their lanterns, but everyone was clearly itching for the main event to begin. We were all cold and bored and tired of waiting. Lots of people decided to signal their impatience by letting their lanterns go early.

Daegu Lantern Festival

A rogue lantern, released early

Daegu Lantern Festival

People are definitely getting impatient now…

Finally, a little after 8:00p.m., the spectacle began. I’m not sure (or maybe I just don’t remember) what the signal was, but suddenly everyone in the crowd began to light their lanterns and release them into the air. The sky was soon filled with hundreds of shining, glittering orbs of light, dancing above our heads. It was truly one of the most magnificent sights I have ever beheld. And yes, it was just like that scene in Tangled, except instead of “I See the Light” there was another beautiful song playing that sounded like it was from some kind of opera. The music suited the event perfectly, and really heightened the emotional aspect of it.

Daegu lantern festivalDaegu lantern festivalDaegu lantern festivalDaegu lantern festivallantern

If there was one disappointing thing about the event, it’s that it was over so quickly. I only had a couple of minutes to take as many photos and videos as I could before the lanterns went on their merry way into the stratosphere. Because of the short duration of the spectacle, I was doomed to commit one of the most common and most tragic of all tourist sins: experiencing an event almost entirely through one’s phone screen. I was so desperate to capture some decent photos and videos in the short time I had that I hardly looked away from my phone to actually pay attention to what was happening around me. I knew that I was going to do this, because I always do this (ugh), but I was still disappointed. Sigh.

After the lanterns had floated away, there were some fireworks over the stadium. They were nice enough but they also only lasted a minute or two, and I didn’t manage to capture any decent photos of them. There was a parade afterwards, too, but I didn’t stick around for it. I had had a very long day and was dying to just make dinner at home, curl up in bed, and stare at my phone for a while.

All in all, the Daegu Lantern Festival was an amazing experience, even though it required an entire day of waiting around for an event that only lasted a couple of minutes. I’m hoping to go again next year and to try to do a better job of actually experiencing the incredible spectacle happening around me, instead of just frantically snapping photos of it. Let’s see how well that works out…

Reflections on My First Month as an EPIK Teacher

Now that my first month as an EPIK teacher has come and gone (actually my first month and a half — I’ve been procrastinating with this post!), I figured I should jot down a few notes about how things have been going so far. Read on to find out how life as a middle school teacher is treating me in Daegu, South Korea.

Firstly, I have to admit that when I found out on the last day of EPIK Orientation that I would be teaching at a middle school, I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping and expecting to be placed in an elementary school, as most EPIK teachers are. However, looking back now, I’m so thankful that I was assigned to middle school instead. I have very little experience working with kids, and I really don’t know how well I would have handled being in charge of a room full of 30+ elementary schoolchildren. Besides, teaching a language to someone completely from scratch seems like an incredibly daunting task. Most middle school students already have basic English skills, so I can communicate with them much more easily than I would be able to do with younger children. I haven’t completely ruled out trying my hand at teaching elementary school one day, but for now I’m perfectly happy in my role as a middle school teacher.

EPIK teacher
The English classroom: what I see
EPIK teacher
The English classroom: what my students see
School lunches are bomb.

In fact, I think I really lucked out with my position. I like my school, I like my students (well, most of them), and I like my co-teachers. I teach students in first and second grade, which is the equivalent of Grade 7 and 8 in Canada. I only teach 18 classes (plus one after-school class) a week, which is less than many other EPIK teachers’ workloads. Moreover, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how quickly I adjusted to my new job. Having had zero previous teaching experience — and not having done any public speaking since graduating university seven years ago — I expected to be super awkward my first time standing in front of a room full of 30-odd teenage faces staring expectantly at me. I assumed it would take me several weeks to find my groove and start feeling comfortable teaching a class. Honestly, I thought I was going to be so nervous on my first day that I wouldn’t even be able to eat breakfast. But the whole experience turned out to be so much less scary than I thought it would be. I was a little nervous on my first day, of course, but the nerves were nowhere near as bad as I thought they would be. (And I ate my breakfast just fine.) It definitely helped that I didn’t start teaching until my third day of work. During my first two days, I simply sat in the 2nd-grade teachers’ lounge working on lesson planning. That was nice because it allowed me to get accustomed to the school, to learn where things were and how things were run there, instead of just being handed a textbook and thrown headfirst into teaching on Day One.

My schedule: only 18 classes a week
The 2nd-grade teachers’ lounge, where you’ll find me whenever I’m not in the English classroom

Of course, as with just about any job, there are certain aspects of being an EPIK teacher that are less than perfect. I think what’s been the most disappointing aspect of the job for me is how much difficulty I have had learning students’ names. I’ve always kind of flattered myself that I’m good with names, but trying to learn my Korean students’ names has proven an impossible task. At this point, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority (as in 99%) of their names will forever remain unknown to me. In my first week, I had the students make nametags for themselves, with the hope that they would bring their nametags to every class and place them on their desks facing me. In my overly ambitious mind, I thought it would be easy for me to pick up their names after glancing a few times at the nametag sitting in front of them. Ohhhh boy, how wrong I was! It’s one thing to remember someone’s name if that name is common in your native language, but quite another thing to learn roughly 540 Korean names that all sound completely foreign to your English-speaking mind. After a month of teaching, I think there are exactly five students in the whole school whose names I know (and two of them are not even the students’ real names but only their English names: Sally and Stella). By the time my third week of teaching began, none of the students were even bringing their nametags to class anymore. I guess they knew as well as I did that my learning their names was a hopelessly lost cause.

Anyways, enough about the job. How have I been adjusting to life in Korea? Swimmingly! In fact, adjusting to life in this country was even easier than adjusting to my new job as a teacher. As far as “culture shock” goes, I can’t say I have really felt it at all. Korea is a modern, wealthy, first-world country, and things run pretty much the same way here as they do in other modern, wealthy, first-world countries. Of course there are little differences, like how students bow to teachers (including me sometimes) in the hallways at school, and how all the teachers are constantly bestowing gifts of rice cakes and oranges on each other. But for the most part, daily life unfolds in Korea in much the same way that it does in Canada. I should probably point out that the exorbitant price of groceries here caught me a little off-guard at first, since nobody had warned me about it beforehand. However, pretty much everything else is cheaper here than in Canada, so things balance out moneywise.

A teacher who gives me oranges all the time brought me a yummy homemade macaron last week. How did she know macarons are my favourite things in the world?

As for Daegu, it’s a great city to live in. There’s so much to see and do here. The job has been keeping me pretty busy from Monday to Friday, but I always have plenty of time on the weekends to get out and explore. I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to actually get out of Daegu and explore other parts of Korea, but I still have tons of things to check off my Daegu bucket list first.

EPIK teacher
Daytime view over Daegu from Apsan Observatory…
…and the nighttime view from the same spot!
Yours truly, admiring the cherry blossoms at Suseong Lake
Cherry blossoms at the Jijeo-dong Cherry Blossom Tunnel
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A sunny Saturday stroll through the Daegu Arboretum
EPIK teacher
Another pic taken at the lovely Daegu Arboretum
EPIK teacher
Cherry blossoms lit with LED lights at E-World’s annual Starlight Cherry Blossom Festival
EPIK teacher
A tranquil scene at Duryu Park

On the whole, my transition to life in Korea has gone just about as smoothly as I could have hoped. I enjoy teaching middle school, I love living in Daegu, and I can’t wait for all the adventures I expect to have in the next 10.5 months. Stay tuned!

Hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu, South Korea

Once again, I have allowed a considerable stretch of time to pass since my last appearance in the blogosphere. So many travel-related things have happened in the past few weeks that I could have written about, but I’ve been too busy (and too lacking in motivation) to bother. Long story short, I moved to South Korea on Feb. 20 to teach English with EPIK. After landing at Incheon Airport near Seoul, I was whisked away to Konkuk University in the city of Chungju, where I spent a week listening to lectures and participating in seminars at EPIK Orientation. After that I was put on a bus and carted off to Daegu, where I started teaching at a middle school on March 6. I like the job so far, but lesson planning has been taking up a lot of my free time, and blogging — as so often happens — has been put on the back burner.

Anyways, last Saturday I decided to reward myself for completing my first week at the new job without any incidents. (Well, without any major incidents…On my first day of teaching, I accidentally said “shit” in front of an entire class of second-grade middle-schoolers, resulting in the biggest eruption of laughter the school probably heard all week. OK, maybe that does count as a “major incident,” but it could have been worse, right??) Since Daegu is surrounded by mountains and is known for its fantastic hiking opportunities, I decided to climb up one of the city’s most heavily-hiked mountains: Mt. Apsan.

I found Mt. Apsan fairly easy to get to via public transportation. The night before I planned to set out on my hike, I consulted a few other blogs and websites to figure out how to get there. All of them said that I would need to catch a bus in order to get to the beginning of the trail. This bummed me out a little, as I was worried about having to go through the hassle of figuring out where and when to board the bus. Luckily, however, when I looked at a map I found that Mt. Apsan is only about a 20-minute walk from Hyeonchungno subway station (on the red line). No bus required! Hassle averted (this time).

I arrived at the base of Mt. Apsan at 11:00 a.m., and began my long hike to the top. There are several different trails of varying lengths and difficulties that you can take to get there. Since I didn’t have a map with me, and didn’t know where to get one, I stuck to one rule: Whenever I came to a fork in the trail, I took the path that led the steepest way UP. I mean, when climbing a mountain, one cannot go wrong as long as one keeps heading in the general direction of “up,” right?

Finally, at about 12:30, I arrived at the top of the mountain. I still had a short way to go before I reached my main objective — Apsan Observatory — but my efforts were rewarded here with a little peek over the city as it stretched off into the distance.

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

After walking along the trail a little longer, I came to a café that looked like this:

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

On top of the café was a viewing platform called Sopra Observatory. No purchase from the café was necessary to visit the observatory, so I walked right on up. On reaching the top of the stairs, I was met with the most spectacular view over Daegu.

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu hiking Mt. Apsan in Daeguhiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

Apsan Observatory on Mt. Apsan in Daegu

Apsan Observatory


After staring at the magnificent scene before me for several minutes, trying to make note of all the tiny details, I continued on my way along the trail. Finally, at about 1:00 — two hours after I began my ascent up the mountain — I arrived at Apsan Observatory. A rather sizeable crowd was gathered on the viewing platform, but there was still plenty of space for all of us to admire the amazing vista spread out before us. As is always the case when hiking a mountain, the view more than made up for the arduous trek to the summit.


I must have accidentally taken one of the longer trails up Mt. Apsan, because I went back down by a different path and it seemed to only take a matter of minutes. (Obviously I know that walking DOWN a mountain is much easier than walking UP. But even when taking that into consideration, I’m sure the path I took back down was a lot shorter than the one I took up.)

On the way back down, I passed by the beautiful Anilsa Temple. My phone’s battery was almost dead by this point, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a bit to snap some photos of the colourful, intricately-detailed architecture of the temple.


By the time I arrived back on level ground, I had just enough charge left on my phone to navigate my way back to Hyeonchungno station via GPS. Next time I go hiking, I will remember to bring my portable charger!

My day on Mt. Apsan was definitely a day well spent, and just the release I needed after a week of being cooped up inside, slaving over lesson plans. If you’re looking for a great way to while away a sunny afternoon in Daegu, you can’t go wrong with a hike up Mt. Apsan!

 

My Upcoming Move (Plus an Upcoming Trip!)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. I haven’t travelled anywhere since I got back from my three-month-long Southeast Asia trip in April. However, I have a very good excuse for my negligence: I’ve been busy completing an online TEFL course and preparing for my upcoming move to South Korea in February 2019! I’m going to be teaching English in a public school for a year with the EPIK program!

As you can imagine, I’m buzzing with excitement and happy nerves for this upcoming chapter of my life. I decided a little over a year ago that I wanted to take my travelling to the next level by moving abroad, and teaching English seemed like the best way to make that happen. So last May, I enrolled in International TEFL Academy’s online TEFL course, which I completed in July. At the beginning of August, I applied for a job with EPIK, and on September 11 I had a Skype interview with the person who would become my EPIK co-ordinator. After five days of wondering doubtfully whether I had passed muster with my poker-faced interviewer, I received an email notifying me that I had passed the interview! This meant that I had the OK to begin the time-consuming, expensive process of collecting all my required documents (certified criminal record check, notarized copy of my bachelor’s degree, letters of recommendation, etc.) to send to Korea. Fast-forward to the late October day on which I sit here writing this, and my thick stack of meticulously-organized documents is finally on its way to my EPIK co-ordinator in Korea. All I have to do now is sit back and wait for my all-important Notice of Appointment to be issued, telling me which province I have been assigned to live and work in. Then I’ll just have to sign my name on the dotted line, and the job is mine!

I probably won’t receive my Notice of Appointment until at least mid-December, which means I’m going to be playing the waiting game for a couple of months. Gee, I wonder what would make the time go by faster? What’s a girl to do when she’s got two months of free time on her hands? Hmmmmmm… Oh, oh! I know! TRAVEL!

Yep, I’m finally heading out on a trip again, after a long, tiresome period of sitting on my butt at home. February is still a long way off, and I wanted to squeeze in one final vacay before I start my new career and become a workaholic all over again. I figured I might as well stay on this side of the world this time, since I will have plenty of time to explore Asia while I’m living in it. And since my trip will take place in November and December, it would be nice to pick a country that can be trusted to have warm, sunny weather at that time of the year. Plus, it’s always a bonus to travel someplace where you can be immersed in a different culture than what you’re used to. Oh, and cheap transportation/accommodation/food are important too, of course.

What magical land could answer to all these criteria? For me, the answer was obvious: MEXICO!

Mexico ticked all the boxes, so to sunny May-hee-ko I go! My plane departs on the morning of November 6, and I’ll touch down in Toronto once more on December 18. Six weeks hardly seems like anything after having been spoiled by my last two trips of three months each, but I’m going to try to make the best of it. I won’t see nearly everything that I want to in Mexico, but I fully intend to have a great time all the same.

I told myself that I wasn’t going to book all of my hostels and bus tickets in advance this time, but instead would go with the flow and keep things flexible so that I can change my plans on a whim. That’s how almost every single traveller that I’ve ever met does things, and I’ve long been meaning to try out that method as well. Within a few days of booking my flight, though, I had to give up the facade and say to myself, “Who am I kidding? Of course I’m going to have the whole trip planned out in advance. Might as well book everything now!” So here I am, almost two weeks before the start of my trip, with every single dorm bed that I’ll be staying in already booked. Old habits die hard!

Here’s my Mexico itinerary:

Nov. 6-12: Mexico City

Nov. 12-15: Puebla

Nov. 15-20: Oaxaca

Nov. 20-21: overnight bus from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas

Nov. 21-25: San Cristobal de las Casas

Nov. 25-26: overnight bus from San Cristobal de las Casas to Merida

Nov. 26-Dec. 2: Merida

Dec. 2-8: Tulum

Dec. 8-13: Playa del Carmen

Dec. 13-18: Cancun

As you can see, I’m saving the best parties for last. 😉

And there you have it! Six weeks in the glorious land of guacamole and tequila. It won’t all be feasting and fiesta-ing though – I’m going to force myself to study Korean for a little bit every day of my vacation. And when I get back I’ll have a little less than two months to prepare for my move across the world. I feel like my life is finally about to begin!

For now, 안녕히 계세요!

 

3.5 Weeks Island-Hopping in Thailand

I saved the islands of Thailand for the end of my 3-month trip through Southeast Asia because I had a feeling they were going to be my favourite part. Turns out I was 100% correct in my prediction. I had such a fantastic time hopping around from one gorgeous island to the next.

Here’s a little highlight reel of the islands I visited!

 

Koh Tao

The first stop on my island-hopping tour was the small island of Koh Tao. My favourite thing that I did while staying here was to take a longtail taxi boat over to the tiny nearby island of Koh Nangyuan and climb the stairs up to the viewpoint. Koh Nangyuan is only a 15-minute boat ride from Koh Tao (300 baht for a return trip). This island is one of those incredible places you can’t believe is real. The view from the viewpoint is breathtaking. I would have sat and stared at it a lot longer than I did if only it hadn’t been so crowded and there hadn’t been a long line of people awaiting their turn on the viewing rock.

 

 

There are also a few really nice viewpoints in Koh Tao that you can hike to. The best one is probably the John-Suwan Viewpoint, but be aware that the path up to it is extremely strenuous. It’s not a long hike to the top, but I literally had to climb uphill on all fours, squeeze through narrow crevices, scramble over rocks on a path that was barely there, and pull myself along using ropes that were dangerously frayed, all while somehow holding a 1.5-litre water bottle in one hand.

I think the view was worth the struggle though.

 

 

The path up to the John-Suwan Viewpoint begins at Freedom Beach. It’s supposed to cost 50 baht to go up, but when I went there was nobody there collecting money. Sweet!

My biggest disappointment in Koh Tao was that the famous Koh Tao Pub Crawl had been indefinitely discontinued shortly before I arrived on the island. I had been really looking forward to taking part in what is supposedly one of the world’s best pub crawls. Luckily Koh Tao still has great nightlife every night of the week. I went out by myself, met some cool people, and had a lot of fun. The Fishbowl is definitely the most popular bar on Sairee Beach, Koh Tao’s main party beach. I constantly heard people talking about it, and it was always packed with fun-loving partiers when I was there.

Koh Tao was good times and good vibes!

 

Koh Phangan

Stop #2 was Koh Phangan, a party animal’s island paradise. The main reason I wanted to go to this island, of course, was to attend the infamous Full Moon Party on Haad Rin beach. Actually, the biggest bucket-list item of my whole trip was to not only make an appearance at the party, but to stay there until sunrise. I’m happy to report that although I required a half-hour power nap on the beach, I successfully stayed out until 8:00AM. At that point I walked back to my hostel and immediately headed straight for my bed, which I did not leave again even once until 6:00PM. I finally managed to drag myself out of bed to eat dinner and take a shower, and by that point it was just about bedtime again. That day was the only real hangover I had throughout the whole trip, but the Full Moon Party was so worth it! I had a blast there.

 

My morning-after painted legs and sandy bed

 

A word of warning about Haad Rin beach: Theft is rampant there. I found that out the hard way when my phone got stolen on my second night in Koh Phangan, two nights before the Full Moon Party. Actually, BOTH of my phones got stolen — I always travel with one phone that takes decent photos but doesn’t have GPS, and one phone that takes shitty photos but has functioning GPS. Normally I only take the latter phone with me on a night out, but for some reason I had decided to take both phones with me the last two or three times I went out. It was late at night — probably 2:00 or 3:00AM — and I was drunk (surprise, surprise). I was at one of the bars on the beach when I happened to look down at my handbag and notice that the zipper was wide open. I immediately panicked and looked inside. Sure enough, both phones were gone. The next day was spent travelling to the police station to file a report, and then wandering around town trying to find the supermarket where the lady at my hostel advised me to go to buy a new phone.

I’m a very frugal person (some would call me cheap), so I bought the second-least expensive smartphone at the store. (The absolute least expensive didn’t look too promising.) It was called the Wiko Sunny2 Plus, which is something I had never heard of before. The box said that the phone’s camera was 5 megapixels. Now, I know absolutely nothing about phones or cameras or megapixels, but a lot of the phones at the store had cameras with 5 megapixels, so I figured that would be okay.

Well, as soon as I got home, I took the phone out of the box and snapped a photo with it. The picture quality was absolutely horrendous. I’m pretty heartbroken about it because having decent photos of the places I visit is really important to me. Serves me right for being cheap, I guess! (Anybody want to buy me a GoPro?)

What’s also unfortunate is that I kind of missed out on all the beautiful sights that Koh Phangan has to offer. Since I was staying so close to Haad Rin beach, I spent all my nights drinking and partying at the bars there, which meant that I never had enough energy to do much during the day. It’s such a shame because I know there’s so much to see and do on the island, and I hardly saw or did any of it. I did manage to go for a walk to a lovely, deserted viewpoint one day, but sadly most of the photos I took that day were lost when my phone got stolen. I guess that means I’ll have to come back someday, right?

 

Ao Nang

After Koh Phangan, it was back to the mainland to spend four nights in Ao Nang. I would say the #1 thing to see if you stay in Ao Nang or Krabi is Railay Beach. It’s one of the most famous beaches in Thailand for good reason. The combination of the emerald water and those majestic limestone karsts makes for some strikingly beautiful scenery.

(Sorry about the poor quality of the photos. I wasn’t kidding when I said that my new phone takes the shittiest pictures ever!)

 

 

It’s super easy to get to Railay Beach from Ao Nang. Just walk to Ao Nang Beach and buy a longtail boat ticket for 200 baht return. I recommend taking the longtail boat past Railay all the way to Phra Nang Beach (same price), then walking from there to Railay and from Railay to Tonsai Beach. I believe you can take a longtail boat from Tonsai Beach back to Ao Nang, but if not it’s a short walk between Tonsai and Railay. (Just be prepared to get wet, as you have to wade through waist-deep water in order to reach the sand at Railay Beach.) You can then take a longtail boat from Railay Beach back to Ao Nang Beach.

 

Tonsai Beach

Tonsai Beach

 

If you’re in the mood for a day trip, there are lots of little islands nearby Ao Nang that are easy to get to via longtail taxi boat or organized tour. I chose to visit Koh Poda, only about 8km away from Ao Nang, after seeing some gorgeous pictures online of its pristine white-sand beach. I bought a ticket for a longtail taxi boat ride to the island, and then waited over half an hour before enough like-minded travellers showed up for the boat to leave. I paid 300 baht for the return boat ride and another 400 baht for entrance to the island, which is part of a national park.

Koh Poda certainly is gorgeous, but there is literally nothing there except the beach. You can’t wander off and go hiking around the island; you can only wander the length of the beach and back. The place is not completely deserted, but it’s far less busy than anywhere in Ao Nang, and there were definitely moments when I was on the far side of the beach and there was not another human in sight. I’m not sure that my short trip to Koh Poda was worth the 700 baht that I paid for it, but I’m glad I went because I got some beautiful photos out of it. (Or at least as beautiful as my awful, awful camera can manage.)

 

 

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta was such a breath of fresh air after all the partying I did on the other islands. It’s a place where people come to just chill out, and I can’t imagine a better place to do so. You probably won’t find any nightlife as wild as what you’ll find on islands like Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi. One night, there was supposed to be a Half Moon Party on one of the beaches, so I decided to go with a few people I had recently met. We walked and walked along the beach but couldn’t find a party anywhere. We did come upon a bar where live music was being played and quite a few people were listening. But the strange thing was that not a single person was dancing or partying. Everybody was just sitting down on the ground in front of the bar, watching the musicians and just chilling out. It was a nice atmosphere, but we were disappointed because we were looking for a party.

What Koh Lanta lacks in terms of nightlife though, it makes up for with its abundance of beautiful, almost-deserted beaches. I stayed at Blanco Hostel, which is only a couple minutes’ walk from Phra Ae Beach (also known as Long Beach.) Long Beach is a beautiful, white-sand beach that stretches for almost 4km. Its considerable length means that it’s never crowded, so it’s easy to find a nice place to lay out your towel.

 

 

On my second day in Koh Lanta, I went swimming at a lovely little secluded beach close to Relax Bay with a couple of new acquaintances. We laid on the beach from 2:00PM until sunset and saw probably fewer than 25 people all day.

 

 

Koh Phi Phi

While conducting research for this trip, I kept reading over and over that Koh Phi Phi is over-crowded, over-rated, and good for nothing but partying. I didn’t find any of that to be true. Okay, so I guess I was there at the tail end of the high season or even the beginning of the low season, but I didn’t find the island over-crowded at all. I mean, yes, there were a lot of people there, but certainly not so many that it was annoying or inconvenient. Furthermore, I think Koh Phi Phi might be the most beautiful of all the islands I visited in Thailand. If you want to snap a photo of that quintessential Thai scenery — brightly decorated longtail boats floating in clear turquoise water — Koh Phi Phi is the perfect place to do so.

 

 

Of course, Koh Phi Phi’s main tourist attraction is Maya Bay, which became internationally famous in 2000 when it starred in the aptly-titled Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach. It seems that most people visit Maya Bay as part of a group tour, but since I hate tours I decided instead to hire a longtail boat with three other people from my hostel. We each paid 450 baht (plus the 400 baht entrance fee for Maya Bay) to hire the boat for three hours. We decided to leave at 6:30AM in order to reach the bay before the massive crowds rolled in. Unfortunately, I had been partaking in Koh Phi Phi’s wild nightlife the previous evening and I overslept (oops!), so we didn’t end up leaving until about 7:15. By the time we arrived at Maya Bay around 8:00, there were already lots of people there, but not so many that it seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the place. Crowds or no crowds, The Beach is definitely a sight not to be missed.

 

 

At 9:00 we left Maya Bay and our boat driver took us to another beach called Monkey Bay. It was a lovely beach, but unfortunately we didn’t see a single monkey. We stayed at Monkey Bay for 20 or 30 minutes, then our driver took us back home. (After a quick breakfast with my dorm mates, I went straight back to bed.)

 

 

If you’re looking for an easy but highly rewarding activity to do in Koh Phi Phi, I wholeheartedly recommend hiking up to the famous viewpoint. Actually, there are three viewpoints (appropriately named Viewpoints 1, 2, and 3), and each one is more spectacular than the last. They’re all connected by a single trail, so that you have to walk past Viewpoints 1 and 2 to get to Viewpoint 3. Getting to the last viewpoint is not a long or strenuous hike by any means, and the views at all three points are absolutely killer. The natural beauty of Koh Phi Phi is something I won’t soon forget.

 

Viewpoint 1

 

Viewpoint 2. Now we’re talkin’.

sunset at Viewpoint 3

 

Phuket

Out of all the places I visited during my 3.5 weeks of island-hopping in Thailand, I liked Phuket the least. (I’m not alone in that feeling — every single person I met who had been to Phuket told me they didn’t like it.) It’s not that the place isn’t beautiful or that there’s a shortage of things to do there, it’s just that it’s so much more expensive than anywhere else in Thailand. Phuket is a huge island, and all of its sights are well spread out, so there’s no way you can walk between them. Since I don’t drive, the only way I could get around was by taxi or tuk-tuk, and the prices they charge are outrageous by Thai standards.

For example, I wanted to visit the Big Buddha, which is one of Phuket’s most popular attractions, and it turned out to be the most expensive taxi ride I’ve ever taken. For the 30-minute drive there and the 30-minute drive back to Patong, I paid a whopping 1,000 baht. That’s $40CAD! Insane. There were so many other attractions in Phuket that I wanted to see, but I just couldn’t afford to go to them. If I could drive I would have rented a scooter for 300 baht a day and driven myself around, but alas! I’m a wimp and would never attempt to drive a motorized vehicle here or anywhere else for all the tea in China.

As for the Big Buddha though, it’s definitely worth visiting. (And entrance to it is free, which made my 1000-baht taxi ride a little easier to take.) I spent a decent amount of time wandering around the huge statue, taking pictures of the magnificent views, and trying my best to avoid the monkeys that were always attempting to steal people’s food.

 

 

On my second-last day in Phuket, I joined a full-day group tour of the islands in beautiful Phang Nga Bay. As I’ve said before, I hate group tours, but I couldn’t possibly leave Thailand without seeing Khao Phing Kan (more commonly known as James Bond Island), and a tour was the easiest and cheapest way to do so. The lady at the tour agency where I bought my ticket gave me a great deal on the tour. The price in the brochure was 3,400 baht, but she only charged me 1,000 baht! (To be honest though, I don’t think the tour was worth anywhere near 3,400 baht, and I wonder if anybody else ever actually pays that.)

Our first stop was the main attraction of Phang Nga Bay and the sole reason I came on the tour: James Bond Island, home of Thailand’s most famous rock. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of pictures of it before, but here are a few more. Doesn’t that rock look like it’s about to topple over?

 

 

After that we went to Hong Island, where we all got into kayaks and had an expert boatman paddle us around through limestone caves and hidden lagoons. It was pretty cool to get up close and personal with that amazing scenery.

 

island

island

 

After Hong Island we stopped at Naka Island to go swimming. I definitely could have done without this part of the tour, as Naka Island wasn’t even picturesque enough for me to bother taking a single photo. All in all, it was a pretty decent day, but I would have been happy if I had just seen James Bond Island and then gone home.

*****

Saving the Thai islands for the last part of my three-month trip was a great decision. I enjoyed them more than any other place I visited in Southeast Asia. It was with a heavy heart that I left Thailand and flew back home to reality. The three months that I spent in Southeast Asia were probably the best three months of my life, and I fully intend to find myself back in this magical corner of the world one day!

5 Days in Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

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4 Days in Battambang, Cambodia

I was really looking forward to my stay in Battambang because I thought it would be my only chance to see the “real” Cambodia outside of the cities. Although Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia, there aren’t a lot of attractions within the city itself. Most people visit Battambang to ride a bicycle or motorbike around the countryside surrounding the city. There are plenty of attractions within a 30km radius of Battambang that are fun to navigate to on your own.

On my first day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle from a rental shop on Street 2.5. I paid only $2USD to have the bike for the whole day. I pedalled 15 km to Phnom Sampeau (also sometimes called Phnom Sampov), a hill with a temple on top of it that affords a great view over the city. It was not an easy ride in the Cambodian heat, let me tell you. I had to keep stopping every few minutes to take a drink of water.

Soaked with sweat and severely dehydrated, I finally got to Phnom Sampeau, parked my bike, and paid the $3USD entrance fee. Just as I was about to start walking up the stairs, a young Cambodian boy approached me and asked if I was going up to the temple. I had heard that there are always local children hanging around who take it upon themselves to act as guides for tourists around the temple and caves on the hill, and then expect a couple of dollars for their services. Sure enough, the boy (who told me he was 13) accompanied me up the stairs without asking me whether I wanted him to or not. I walked and talked with him for a while, and then handed him a $1 bill and told him I could go the rest of the way by myself. He accompanied me all the way to the temple anyway, but then thankfully left me to sightsee on my own.

The temple itself isn’t really anything special, but the view over Battambang from where it stands is pretty nice. There are tons of monkeys hanging around the temple, so be careful. Thankfully, they seemed completely uninterested in me for the most part. There was a curious little one that kept coming towards me as I was walking away from him, but I managed to scare him off before he attacked.

After seeing the temple, I walked around and explored a couple of cool caves around the hill. During my ramble, I ran into the Cambodian boy again. He and a couple of other boys took me to a cave known as Flower Cave. Then he brought me into a small, dark cave where I had to use my cell phone flashlight to see bats flying around overhead. (He assured me in advance that I did not have to pay him anything for this tour.)

Battambang

Flower Cave

Whether you choose to cycle, take a motorbike, or hire a tuk-tuk, I highly recommend checking out Phnom Sampeau. There’s quite a lot to see there.

On my second day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle again. This time I headed towards the ancient ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, about 12 km outside of town. The ruins don’t cover a very big area, but it was pretty cool to climb around and explore them. As a bonus, there were only a few other people there, so I could take as many selfies as I wanted without feeling self-conscious.

That night, I went to a performance by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) circus. PPSA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Cambodian children through arts training and educational programs. Their circus is well-known as one of the top attractions in Battambang. The performers at the show I attended were absolutely incredible. It’s insane what some people can do with their bodies. I was a little bit terrified when one of the female performers started hula-hooping with a ring of fire, but she pulled it off effortlessly. And when another performer built a tower by balancing cylinders and boards on top of each other, I was like, “Oh hell no. Ain’t no way you gon’ stand up on that, boy.” But then lo and behold, he stood up and balanced on it while hardly even shaking! Don’t miss a PPSA circus performance if you visit Battambang. (I paid $14USD for my ticket, and the show lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.)

The next day I didn’t do too much of anything. I had planned to take a ride on the Bamboo Train, which is supposedly the #1 must-do attraction in Battambang, but I found out from the staff at my hostel that morning that the old Bamboo Train has been closed and the new one is located some 20km out of town. I wasn’t going to pay $20 to take a tuk-tuk there and back, so I decided to just spend the day walking around the town.

The hostel that I stayed at, Here Be Dragons (great hostel!), happened to be hosting a cocktail party in their bar that night where all cocktails were $2USD from 5PM – 11PM. I decided to go on a hunt for a bottle of vodka to use for pre-drinking before heading to the bar that night. Let me tell you, I have never in my life had so much difficulty finding a bottle of alcohol. I walked around the town for hours without success. I inquired at so many convenience stores whether they had any vodka (or rum or gin or anything else that would alter my mental state), but the answer was always negative. Finally I popped into a random, unassuming little shop and saw a row of whiskey bottles on display — apparently the only kind of alcohol they sold there. I realized this was the closest I was going to come to what I wanted, so I asked how much it was. The girl working there told me it was 3500 Cambodian riel, which is $0.90USD. Damn, what a steal! Granted, the alcohol content was only 23%, so it was hardly even whiskey at all, but beggars can’t be choosers. The girl wiped off the thick layer of dust coating the entire bottle (clearly this whiskey is not a big seller) and put it into a bag for me. I walked away feeling finally victorious, and also convinced that bottled vodka simply does not exist in Battambang.

On my last day in the city, I rented a bicycle once again for another hot, sweaty ride through the Cambodian countryside. My goal this time was to reach Phnom Banan, another hill with a temple built on top of it and great views. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to Phnom Banan. It would have been a 21-km ride there and a 21-km ride back, and I was just too hot and sweaty to complete that mammoth task (not to mention the long walk up the stairs to the top of the hill). Besides, I had slept in that day and consequently didn’t start my bike ride as early as I would have liked, so I was worried I might not make it home before dark if I took time to explore Phnom Banan. I rode as far as a temple which, according to my map, is known as Wat Bay Damram (about a 15-km ride) and then turned around and headed back. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to Phnom Banan, but at least I got to see a glimpse of rural Cambodian life during my ride. That’s what I really wanted to see when I came to Battambang anyway.

Battambang is a place that you should definitely visit if you want to see what Cambodia is like outside of the cities. There’s nothing like having the freedom to explore on your own two wheels, and Battambang provides plenty of opportunities to do that. As long as you don’t mind being (extremely) hot and sweaty all day, you’ll have a great time there!

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia!

4 Days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

While I was in Thailand and Vietnam, so many people warned me that Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was a scary place to be. Whenever I told people that I was staying there for four days, they looked at me in shock and assured me that that was way too long to spend there. Almost everybody I spoke to who had been to Phnom Penh told me that either somebody had tried to rob them there or they knew somebody who had been robbed there. Nobody seemed to have anything good to say about the city. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about my upcoming time in Phnom Penh.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried at all. I honestly have no idea why everybody seems to hate Phnom Penh so much. I never felt the slightest bit unsafe while walking through the streets there. To me, it seems to be a pretty typical Southeast Asian city in every regard. The tuk-tuk drivers are ubiquitous and annoyingly persistent — it seemed like every 30 seconds somebody shouted at me, “Hello, lady. Tuk-tuk?” — but they’re completely harmless if you just ignore them. Of course I kept a close eye on my bag at all times, just in case, but there’s really no reason to be scared here.

There are two main sights in Phnom Penh that nobody leaves the city without seeing: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields. During the 1970s, Cambodia fell under control of an evil communist party called the Khmer Rouge. In their attempt to create a perfect society, the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians. Under this murderous regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, the country lost 30% of its population.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison for detaining, interrogating, torturing, and murdering innocent people whom they deemed enemies of the revolution. Today it’s a museum that allows visitors to learn about the horrors that occurred there during the darkest chapter of Cambodia’s history. It’s certainly not a fun place to visit, but it’s an essential stop in Phnom Penh for anyone who wants to understand the unfathomable suffering that Cambodians underwent only a few decades ago.

Phnom Penh

The day after I went to Tuol Sleng museum, I visited the Killing Fields. This is one of the many sites in Cambodia where prisoners from S-21 and other prisons were taken to be executed (beaten, stabbed, and hacked to death because bullets were too expensive) and buried in mass graves. I paid a tuk-tuk driver $15USD to take me there, wait for me while I visited, and then drive me back to the city. (It’s about a half-hour drive each way.)

Entrance to the Killing Fields is another $6USD, and you get an audio guide for free. I normally don’t like audio guides and don’t bother with them, but this one definitely enhanced the experience a hundredfold. The buildings that once stood at the Killing Fields have been torn down and replaced by signs that explain what was once there, but the audio guide elaborates extensively on what the signs say. The information is terribly interesting too, and I learned a lot during the 80 minutes or so that I spent at the Killing Fields. It’s mind-boggling and horrifying to think of the atrocities that human beings committed against other human beings here and elsewhere in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

After I got back from the Killing Fields, I walked to Phnom Penh’s Central Market. In terms of how it’s laid out and what’s sold there, the Central Market resembles every other market in Southeast Asia. The cool thing about this one is the large, dome-roofed Art Deco building that it’s housed in. It’s worth checking out if you have some spare time in Phnom Penh.

The next day, I decided to check out the Royal Palace, which is the official residence of the King of Cambodia. The palace is certainly beautiful, but definitely not worth the $10USD entrance fee. It was modelled after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, so the buildings look very similar to the ones there. If I remember correctly though, the temple complex in Phnom Penh is much smaller and less impressive than the one in Bangkok. I’m sure I spent far more time exploring the Grand Palace than the Royal Palace. So if you’ve already seen Bangkok’s palace, you can probably pass on seeing Phnom Penh’s.

If you want a hostel recommendation, the Mad Monkey is THE place to stay in Phnom Penh. It’s a huge, clean hostel with its own bar, restaurant, and pool. The city doesn’t seem to have a huge number of options in terms of nightlife — everybody in the hostel heads out to the same small nightclub at 11:45 every night, and then just walks back home after dancing for a while — but I always had a fun night while staying at Mad Monkey. They host a different event in the bar every night of the week (e.g. free keg parties, free punch parties, pub crawls, pub quizzes, BBQs, etc.), so it’s easy to meet people and socialize. It’s pretty clear why this is the most popular hostel in Phnom Penh.

As you can see, my apprehension towards Phnom Penh turned out to be completely unfounded. The tuk-tuk drivers are annoying as hell, but nobody ever made me feel at all unsafe during the four days I spent there. To be honest, there aren’t a ton of things to do in the city, so I can understand why so many people want to leave after seeing the Killing Fields and S-21. But I personally had quite a good time in Phnom Penh, thanks to the cool hostel I stayed at and the great people I met there.

Next stop: Battambang, Cambodia!

5 Days in Ho Chi Minh City

I actually liked Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) a lot more than I thought I would. I thought it was basically going to be a repeat of Hanoi — terrifying traffic, dingy streets, impassable sidewalks. To my surprise, I found HCMC to be completely different from Hanoi in all the best ways. For the most part, you can actually walk on the sidewalks there — they’re not crammed full of parked motorbikes and people eating on little plastic chairs. HCMC is just so much brighter, sunnier, and generally more pleasant than Hanoi.

My first day in HCMC I decided to devote to some standard sightseeing. First I walked to the city’s most famous market, Ben Thanh market. I didn’t take any pictures there, but it’s basically just your typical Southeast Asian indoor market. I’m sure you can imagine what it looks like. I browsed around aimlessly among the narrow lanes for a while and then left.

After that I decided to check out the city’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which has a viewing platform on the 49th floor. The ticket price is expensive at 200,000VND, but you get a fabulous 360° view of the city.

Ho Chi Minh City

When I felt I had soaked up the view long enough, I returned to the ground and headed towards one of the most famous buildings in the city, the Notre Dame cathedral. They’re currently doing some maintenance work on it, so it’s not at maximum attractiveness, but the façade is still as stately as ever.

Directly across the street from the cathedral is the Central Post Office, so I figured I might as well check that out while I was there. I know nothing about architecture, but I can see why the post office is well-known as one of the best examples of French colonial style in the city.

On my second day in HCMC, I paid a visit to Independence Palace (formerly known as Reunification Palace). Honestly, I’m neither a history person nor a museum person, so this wasn’t the most enthralling attraction for me. I walked around the palace peeking into one fancy-ish room after another until they all started to look the same. I wouldn’t call Independence Palace a must-see unless you’re really into Vietnamese history.

The one place I knew I couldn’t miss seeing while in HCMC was the Mekong Delta. Normally I hate taking tours — I would much rather visit places on my own — but since I only had one day to visit the Mekong, a tour was both the easiest and the cheapest way to do so. I stayed at The Hideout (the most popular party hostel in HCMC) and noticed they were offering a one-day Mekong Delta tour for only 230,000VND. That sounded like a good deal, so I booked it.

Well, the tour turned out to be a major cash grab and a reminder of why I hate tours. Our first stop in the Mekong Delta was a coconut candy making workshop. Our tour guide gave us a brief demonstration of how coconut candy is made there, then offered us free samples of the finished product. After that we were given an ample amount of free time to browse around the shop and check out all the coconut-related items for sale. It was pretty obvious we were only brought there in the hopes that we would purchase something.

Later in the day we went to an apiary for a tea tasting which was nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to persuade us to buy the honey that they put in our tea. The tea was just about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever drunk in my life, so I really had no inclination to buy any of the ingredients in it. After a very basic lunch, we had about half an hour of free time to explore Phoenix Island, but it was hard to see much in such a short time. There were some pretty flowers on the island though.